Tim Hortons in hot water - Dooley PR

Ah Tim Hortons. Beloved by Canadians and long regarded as the bastion of all that is emblematic of our country: Trustworthy. Reliable. Honest. But should we add unscrupulous to that list? Considering the organization’s latest misstep, that remains up for public debate.

In the wake of the tragic bus crash which took the lives of 16 members of the Humboldt junior hockey team, one Tim Hortons location in Halifax released a commemorative Humboldt donut to pay respects to the victims. The donut, sprinkled with the Humboldt team colours of green and yellow, was sold for $1 at that location. The glaring problem with this initiative? None of the proceeds from the sale of the donut actually went towards helping the victims of the crash. Instead, the owner of that particular franchise apparently donated an undisclosed amount to the Humboldt junior hockey club.

The furor that consequently ensued was swift and predictable. Tim Hortons immediately came under fire for employing exploitative practices for the sake of financial gain. The owner’s “personal donation” was relegated to a mere footnote as the larger story about the organization’s unscrupulous business practices dominated the emotionally-charged conversation. It had been a trying week for Canadians and this ill-advised tactic served to stoke the flames of public sentiment even more.

In an attempt to quell the criticism, Tim Hortons made a few key strategic decisions. The organization’s head office dispatched a corporate spokesperson who announced that the offending donut would be sold in stores nationwide, with all proceeds benefiting the Humboldt junior hockey team. The organization also made a $50,000 donation to the Humboldt hockey club. The floundering franchisee was (presumably) directed not to make any more public statements which allowed the corporate spokesperson to clarify and reiterate the brand’s key messages and values. By entering the fray, the organization also showed that it cared enough about the issue to address it directly and apologize on behalf of the whole company.

Could this have been avoided? Maybe. As a franchised organization, Tim Hortons should have clear policies and procedures that are communicated and implemented across the board, especially at store-level. It is nearly impossible to command and control the communications of every single franchisee. Doing so would also take a monumental amount of human resources that could be better spent elsewhere. It would be more effective for the organization to set clear parameters over the kinds of decisions franchisees can make autonomously and which ones they should seek corporate approval for.

The Tim Hortons episode reminds us of the importance of clearly communicating brand values across a company. The better franchisees understand the organization’s values, the less likely they will make mistakes like this one. It won’t stop errant individuals from veering off from the company’s directives, but it will help enormously.

And the nice thing about having everyone understand your values is that your people start self-policing their peers. If they see something happening that is counter to what the company stands for, they’re more likely to call it out.

Ultimately, while Tim’s landed itself in hot water, the organization was able to contain the crisis and appears to have turned the tide of public criticism. Sales from the Humboldt donut equalled $801,066.27, making it the “highest donut fundraising initiative in Tim Hortons’ history.”

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